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Impetigo

Impetigo (im-puh-TIE-go) is a highly contagious skin infection that mainly affects infants and children. Impetigo usually appears as red sores on the face, especially around a child's nose and mouth. The sores burst and develop honey-colored crusts.

Impetigo may clear on its own in two to three weeks, but antibiotics can shorten the course of the disease and help prevent the spread to others.

You may need to keep your child home from school or day care until he or she is no longer contagious, which is usually 24 to 48 hours after you begin antibiotic treatment. Without antibiotics, impetigo is contagious until the sores go away.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Classic signs and symptoms of impetigo involve red sores that quickly rupture, ooze for a few days and then form a yellowish-brown crust. The sores usually occur around the nose and mouth but can be spread to other areas of the body by fingers, clothing and towels.

A less common form of the disorder, called bullous impetigo, may feature larger blisters that occur on the trunk or diaper area of infants and young children.

A more serious form of impetigo, called ecthyma, penetrates deeper into the skin — causing painful fluid- or pus-filled sores that turn into deep ulcers.

When to see a doctor

If you suspect that you or your child has impetigo, consult your family doctor, your child's pediatrician or a dermatologist.

You're exposed to the bacteria that cause impetigo when you come into contact with the sores of someone who's infected or with items they've touched — such as clothing, bed linen, towels and even toys.

Factors that increase the risk of impetigo include:

  • Age. Although anyone can develop impetigo, it most commonly occurs in children ages 2 to 6.
  • Crowded conditions. Impetigo spreads easily in schools and child care settings.
  • Warm, humid weather. Impetigo infections are more common in summer.
  • Certain sports. Participation in sports that involve skin-to-skin contact, such as football or wrestling, increases your risk of developing impetigo.
  • Broken skin. The bacteria that cause impetigo often enter your skin through a small skin injury, insect bite or rash.

Older adults and people with diabetes or a compromised immune system are more likely to develop ecthyma, a deeper and more serious form of impetigo.

Impetigo typically isn't dangerous, but complications can sometimes occur. Examples include:

  • Scarring. The ulcers associated with ecthyma, a deeper and more serious form of impetigo, can leave scars.
  • Cellulitis. This potentially serious infection affects the tissues underlying your skin and eventually may spread to your lymph nodes and into the bloodstream. Left untreated, cellulitis can quickly become life-threatening.
  • Kidney problems. One of the types of bacteria that cause impetigo can also damage your kidneys.

Keeping the skin clean is the best way to keep it healthy. Treat cuts, scrapes, insect bites and other wounds right away by washing the affected areas.

If someone in your family already has impetigo, take these measures to help keep the infection from spreading to others:

  • Gently wash the affected areas with mild soap and running water and then cover lightly with gauze.
  • Wash an infected person's clothes, linens and towels every day and don't share them with anyone else in your family.
  • Wear gloves when applying any antibiotic ointment and wash your hands thoroughly afterward.
  • Cut an infected child's nails short to prevent damage from scratching.
  • Wash hands frequently.
  • Keep your child home until your doctor says he or she isn't contagious.
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